Martin, Steve. Shopgirl.

NY: Hyperion, 2000.

The best way to approach this short book is to pretend you’ve never heard of Steve Martin, to forget that he was once a wild and crazy guy with a fake arrow through his head. Anyone who has read his more recent novels (this one was his first) and short stories and screenplays knows he’s a lot deeper than that. His imagination also displays considerable breadth, from the hilariously bizarre originality of Cruel Shoes to the in-depth social observation of An Object of Beauty.

There are essentially two characters in this story — well, two-and-a-half if you count Jeremy the amplifier-stenciler. The first is Mirabelle, who works the glove counter at the Beverly Hills Neiman-Marcus — except “work” is an overstatement since dress gloves are out of fashion and she is essentially consigned to shopper Siberia. At twenty-eight, she’s better educated than most of her peers, with an MFA, and she occasionally sells drawings to local galleries. She’s slightly off-kilter, basically passive and vulnerable, which makes her very attractive to a certain kind of man, and she’s beautiful in an entirely unmannered way (what you wake up with in the morning is what you went to bed with at night — a nice bit of description). But all she really wants is someone to talk to.

Ray Porter is a fifty-year-old unmarried millionaire businessman from Seattle with a pied à terre in Los Angeles. He sees Mirabelle at the store and immediately wants her. But rather than initiating a conversation, his method is to send her a gift with an invitation to dinner, which fits with his efficiently logical program for dealing with the world. The author makes it clear that Ray is not a predator — no more than any other single male — but his interest in Mirabelle obviously is not altruistic.

One of the best parts of the book is the way the relationship between Mirabelle and Ray differs profoundly, depending on which side one sees it from. They constantly misread each other. While he’s trying to be ethical by carefully explaining to her that he’s not ready for a full-time committed relationship, she’s hearing “not yet, but I will be.” As each begins to think he/she understands the other, neither of them really understands anything. This may be true of most of us, most of the time. In another episode, we learn that Mirabelle suffers from a clinical depression which can be successfully chemically controlled, but that when a given medication no longer works for her, she’s likely to undergo a serious downer before she can begin getting used to the replacement prescription. Martin’s description of this profoundly harrowing periodic experience, and the thin veneer of normalcy that equates with “success,” will bring beads of sweat to your forehead and make you wonder whether he’s writing from first-hand experience.

There are really only two potential problems with this book, both of which seem to be deliberate narrative decisions. One is the tendency to explain to the reader the revelations made about the characters and how one ought to react to them. The other is the lack of dialogue. You’re a third of the way into the book before encountering your first bit of conversation, so that when Mirabelle and Ray do speak, it’s kind of jarring after hearing only the author’s own voice. Despite this, it’s a very well-written novel (well, novella), exactly the right length to say what it wants to say.

Published in: on 27 January 2012 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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